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Synthetic Phonics

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Last week two academics, Rhona Johnson of Hull University and Joyce Watson of St Andrews University, published some startling evidence. According to their research, children taught at primary school by the so-called ‘synthetic phonics’ method – where letter sounds are taught, then synthesized, or blended, to make words – are on average three and a half years of their chronological age when they make their secondary transfer.

It was discovered that the most marked improvement were those from disadvantaged homes: in contrast to the picture nationally, they had not already fallen by their peers by the age of seven. This confirmed American research, which suggested that, while synthetic phonics doesn’t disadvantage anyone, struggling pupils benefit most.

There is a phonics component to the National Literacy Strategy. According to one expert in this field, Geraldine Bedell: “Where good synthetic phonics programmes will teach 43 letter sounds and combinations in 16 weeks, the literacy strategy stretches the process out over years. Long vowels sounds, such as ‘er’ and ‘ar’ aren’t taught until the second year of primary school, meaning that for a long time there remains a clutch of words that children can’t decode. To make matters worse, their reading books don’t match their decoding level.”

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There is no doubt that phonics, properly taught, plays an important part in teaching literacy skills. But there is a risk, and one fuelled by recent coverage of the Clackmannanshire study, that phonics is somehow seen as a magic bullet which will ensure that every child leaves primary school as an effective and enthusiastic reader.

Phonics is based on the simple premise that in order to learn to read a child must be able to recognise and combine the basic sounds, or phonemes, that make up the English language. But it is a big jump to suggest that teaching children phonics at an early stage in their education would, on its own, conquer the spectre of illiteracy for good, as some of its most enthusiastic supporters claim.

Mastery of phonics will, of course, enable a child to correctly "decode" all the regular words on the page. This means that they have the ability to turn the letters into sounds and the sounds into words. This is a critical first step in learning to read, and that is why it is at the heart of our national literacy strategy. We promote phonics as the first and foremost strategy that children employ as they encounter new words. But on its own it is simply not enough.

When we talk about reading, we are not just interested in teaching a child to decode. Reading is more than correctly identifying words on a page. It is also about understanding what has been written, and responding critically to the ideas, themes and events contained in the words. This is what we mean when we say that we want our children to read for purpose and pleasure.

Authoritative research shows that children learn to read best when clear and direct instruction in phonics is combined with a range of different teaching strategies that develop a child's ability to understand the context of what is written, instantly recognise frequently used words, and use and apply grammar correctly.

Between 1997 and 2000, the National Reading Panel, commissioned by the US Congress, assessed the full range of international research on the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read English. It is the most comprehensive overview of strategies to teach reading that currently exists. The panel's report, published in 2000, found that systematic phonics instruction is only one component - albeit a necessary one - of a total and effective reading programme.

Last year, 92% of 11-year-olds left primary school able to "read a range of text accurately and read independently with pace and fluency". But this government's aspiration is that children should leave primary school not only able to read fluently, but able to show understanding of significant ideas, themes and events. These are the skills children need to enable them successfully to access the secondary curriculum. Eighty-three per cent of 11-year-olds last year achieved this. That it is a big improvement on the 67% in 1997, but we are determined to see standards rise further.

There is more to do to support teachers in enabling children to read, to further develop their knowledge and understanding of phonics teaching, and to learn how this is most effectively combined with different reading strategies. That is why, in the primary national strategy, we are emphasising this within our major leadership programme, our new work with early years settings, and our intensive support for low-performing schools. But we are clear that the way forward is not a prescriptive and reductionist approach to phonics, to the exclusion of all else.

To make the most of education and fulfil their potential, the next generation will need secure phonics skills. But they also deserve to enjoy a wide range of literature and poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing; to develop a rich vocabulary; and to acquire the skills that enable them to make sense of, and respond to, what they read. This is what educating a child to be literate means.


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John Bald is a freelance literacy and language teacher. This article about phonics appeared in this week's Education Guardian.


Labour came to power determined to raise standards, beginning with reading. The front bench had taken reports of falling reading standards seriously, and had been impressed by phonic reading schemes, notably at St Clare's School in Handsworth, Sheffield, which won a £50,000 Jerwood award from a committee that included shadow minister Baroness Blackstone.

David Blunkett wanted a national initiative that could not be blocked or subverted by local authorities. A Tory initiative, the national literacy centre, was renamed the national literacy strategy, and the first guidance hit schools the term after the election.

Thought through at leisure, the NLS was launched in haste and with a mountain of paper, soon dubbed the Lunchbox. This offered a complete programme for primary schools based on "literacy hours" - a structure imported from Australia. It included a system of teaching, reading at the levels of word, sentence and text from the beginning; and its own theory of reading, known as searchlights. This theory argues that reading is based on the use of all potential sources of information to make sense of a text, including context, words already known, grammatical structures and phonic knowledge.

The literacy hour was to have the same basic structure for all lessons from the reception class to year 6, with lessons based on an accompanying framework, which progressed from zero to a standard approaching A-level. It was the new model literacy lesson, backed by a Cromwellian system of enforcement through local education authority consultants.

Labour's landslide gave the NLS a fair wind, and it had important strengths. The literacy hour sharpened time management in many classrooms, and the word-sentence-text structure allowed all levels of meaning to be considered at once, a problem that had defeated academic linguistics for most of the last century. The NLS did not, however, take account of the different learning needs and maturity of five- and 11-year-olds. Younger children often found it difficult to work independently, as the NLS wanted, and older children had too little time for writing. Teachers had to find their own way round these problems, often going against national guidance.

Searchlights, the spearhead of the reading drive, said virtually nothing about how reading develops. As we learn to read, our knowledge of words, patterns and structures grows, and this changes the way we think. Doctoral research in the 1980s and 1990s had shown that natural phrasing comes with the ability to read words quickly, without having to work each word out, and that guessing is a dubious tactic, as children often misread subsequent text to make sense of a wrong guess. Searchlights does give clear guidance on which strategies are most important at different stages of learning to read. This leaves some children without the basic toolkit they need, so that they have to rely too much on clues, cues, context and pictures for things that should be clear in their minds. The NLS strengthened its phonic component a couple of years into the project with a useful booklet, Progression in Phonics, but this missed the initial thrust of the training.

These questions of development and timing are at the heart of the current dispute. The research in Clackmannanshire by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson shows clear gains in spelling and in reading words at 11 among boys and girls from all social backgrounds. On the other hand, there is still a failure rate - one in 20 pupils was two years or more below average in word reading, and almost a fifth in comprehension. This reflects a trend found by Jean Chall in the early 1990s in the US. She identified a widening gap in literacy skills on transfer to secondary schools between pupils from different social classes: those from less literate backgrounds found it more difficult to understand texts as they became further removed from everyday language, and so fell further behind.

These aspects of reading depend on much more than the links between sounds and letters, and a recent HMI publication, Reading for Purpose and Pleasure, makes clear that schools need to foster all aspects of reading, including strategies beyond phonics, if children are to develop positive attitudes and the range of reading skills they need. It reported that some effective schools said the searchlights model helped them to do this. There is also the question of irregular features in English, which make learning to read more difficult than in other languages. Johnston and Watson's findings should enable teaching to be restructured to tackle these issues from a more secure baseline. Evidence of this quality was not available in the last round of the reading wars, or to the incoming government in 1997. Ruth Kelly and her colleagues should study it closely, and take sensible, moderate action to improve phonics teaching in the NLS.

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